Alberta is under fire from environmentalists and foreign governments over its tar sand operations –perhaps with good reason. Producing oil from tar sand produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than does conventional oil production, and its byproducts are not just unsightly, they’re lethal to wildlife, especially migratory birds (as do windmills, but that’s grist for another column). Tar sand production despoils large areas of wilderness in Canada’s Boreal Forests, and the Syncrude company’s tailing pond is currently the second largest dam on Earth, only exceeded in size by China’s Three-Gorges Dam. Tar sand operations also consume large amounts of freshwater and natural gas. There’s no question that Alberta’s environmental image has been given a large black eye over its tar sands.
In an effort to blunt some of the criticism of Alberta’s tar sand industry, Premier Ed Stelmach has pledged to spend $2 billion to help fund deployment of technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by the oil sands industry, hoping to at least take the greenhouse gas issue off the list of grievances. But in many ways, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is, both literally and figuratively, a pipe dream. Rather than producing a viable greenhouse gas control technique, the taxpayers $2 billion “investment” will be little more than a free PR campaign for the tar sand industry.
Let’s review the problems with the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which make it unlikely as an environmental savior. Land-based CCS consists of three primary activities: capturing carbon dioxide out of an emissions stream, compressing it into a liquid, and then piping that liquid over land, and down into the Earth where, in theory, it will be retained in geological formations for hundreds or thousands of years. It sounds quite simple, until you dig into the details.
First, there’s the difficulty of capturing carbon dioxide. One of the reasons that CO2 is so difficult to deal with is that it’s an extremely stable molecule, one that isn’t easily bound to other substances. In fact, binding up carbon dioxide takes quite a lot of energy. Estimates suggest that capturing carbon from a conventional coal-fired power plant, for example, could consume up to 40% of the plant’s total power output. The technology isn’t exactly cheap, either: the US Department of Energy estimates that adding CCS technology to power plants would double their costs, raising energy rates by 21 to 91 percent.
Second, transporting the bulk of CO2 that would have to be stored is no small feat. When fossil fuels are burned, the carbon atoms that make up the fuel are bound to two oxygen atoms. As a result, the mass of the CO2 emissions are considerably greater than the mass of the original fuel. For example, if you burn one ton of coal that has a carbon content of 78%, you wind up producing almost three tons of carbon dioxide. If one has to transport that mass any significant distance to bury it, the infrastructure costs become a problem. One estimate, made by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, suggests that the transport component of CCS becomes cost-prohibitive if it is more than 100km to the point of burial.
Third, there are questions of both durability and safety: what is put underground does not always stay underground. And in the case of CO2, which is 1.5 times denser than air, the consequences of large scale leaks can be devastating. A telling example comes from a volcanic eruption in Cameroon. When Lake Nyos erupted in 1986, a mass of CO2 and water was ejected that suffocated 1,700 people, 3,500 head of livestock, as well as large quantities of local wildlife as it spread across the land. Imagine the black eye Alberta could get for a leaky CO2 reservoir, or massive pipeline rupture!
Carbon capture and storage faces innumerable problems, and, many analysts believe, is more likely vapor-ware than hardware. It’s understandable that Premier Stelmach would like to improve the environmental reputation of Alberta, and he may think that paying $2 billion to promote a technology of dubious merit is a cheap way to buy good publicity. But one has to ask, who should fund what is in essence a $2 billion dollar PR campaign for the tar sands, Alberta’s taxpayers or the companies that seek to profit from it?